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Homeless but not hopeless: Spokane high school students overcome the odds

For Amanda Harpole, the road to homelessness began four years ago with a choice no 13-year-old girl should have to make – stay in her drug-infested home in rural Montana, or flee to an uncertain future in Spokane.

She chose Spokane. Life was that bad in Whitehall, a town of about a thousand people east of Butte.

Harpole’s parting words to her mother: “Come and get me if you want.”

Her mom didn’t, and Harpole didn’t look back. She found housing with extended family, and help – more than she could have imagined – from the teachers and counselors at North Central High School.

“Without them I would have dropped out by now,” said Harpole, who instead will ascend the steps at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on Saturday evening and receive her diploma.

Like everything else in her life, Harpole will seize it with both hands. Then she’ll work toward the next goal: studies at Spokane Falls Community College.

Come September, Harpole will be the first in her family to graduate from high school and enter college.

“She’s not letting the outside things in her life control her,” said Danielle Duffey, who works with homeless teens as a community specialist for the Homeless Education And Resource Team (HEART) program at Spokane Public Schools.

“She’s gone the straight and narrow.”

Defying the odds

For homeless teens, the straight and narrow isn’t a path. It’s a tightrope, with little margin for error.

Imagine trying to finish a term paper while crashing in a homeless shelter. Or wearing the same clothes as yesterday and hoping your classmates won’t notice.

“I don’t think the public has any idea what these kids face on a daily basis, and more importantly, their past,” Duffey said.

“People are appalled that we even have homeless students in the district,” Duffey said. “They are always fascinated and want to know more, but the naivete of our society is that only adults are homeless and that is their own fault.”

Duffey’s position with Spokane Public Schools didn’t exist until 2014, when the district began hiring social workers to help homeless students navigate the system.

She and fellow HEART counselor Tracie Fowler split duties among four high schools, serving almost 300 teens.

“I don’t think people understand the depth and breadth of the impact (of homelessness) on students’ ability to attend school, apply for jobs, get to work on time,” Fowler said.

Fowler spends part of her week at Rogers High School, where principal Lori Wyborney has hired an additional social worker and says that still isn’t enough.

Her staff has identified about 225 homeless students, or roughly 1 in 7 kids at the high school in northeast Spokane.

Of those, 178 are “unaccompanied,” that is living with someone other than a parent or legal guardian. The rest are homeless with their families.

The reasons are as diverse as the student body.

“One kid told me he got kicked out of his house for Christmas, then his parents let him back in,” Wyborney said. “The reality is that there are hard times in this neighborhood – a lot of folks actually can’t afford to keep an older kid in the house.”

“And sometimes mom and dad have died,” Wyborney said. “Still, they come to school every day.”

The principal senses the public’s skepticism about the kids’ motives.

“It’s easy to say, ‘yeah, that’s where they get their food,’” she said. “But with so many other issues going on in their lives, you’d think school would be the last thing they’d think about.”

Surprisingly, it’s usually their top priority. According to a 2016 report compiled by the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, about 75 percent of homeless students in Spokane found a way to graduate.

That’s more than 20 percent higher than the state average, perhaps due to the district going beyond what’s required by state law.

The need is great. Priority Spokane estimates there are about 3,000 homeless students in Spokane County.

“It’s remarkable to watch them succeed against such horrible odds,” Wyborney said.

Craving stability, wherever it is

Nicholas Decker is a senior at Rogers, but wears his Louisiana roots on his sleeve with a New Orleans Saints football jersey. An LSU cap rests snugly on his head.

Both are reminders of the home torn apart by his parents’ divorce when he was 13. He tried living with his mother in Indiana, then moved to Spokane his freshman year to live with his father.

Decker endured “a lot of changing situations” before he moved in with his girlfriend’s family last year.

Now Decker is back with his father and his father’s wife. Technically, he’s no longer homeless, but little else has changed.

“At his age, I don’t think I would have had that courage,” Wyborney said. “The thing for me that’s super frustrating is that our system doesn’t have anywhere for homeless teens to go.”

Decker sleeps at his dad’s house, but his bedrock is Rogers High School, where he is served hot meals and knowledge.

His favorite class is English, where the teachers “allow us to (express) our own arguments, our own opinions,” Decker said. His favorite teachers are Jenny Darcy and Jessica Knudsen.

Not satisfied with life in the margins, Decker played spring football and joined the Link Crew, which welcomes incoming freshmen. As a sophomore, he started an anime club.

“You wouldn’t know he’s homeless,” Wyborney said of Decker. “He does alright in class and he doesn’t get into trouble.”

He also cleans vehicles on the weekends to help with the bills while still keeping up with schoolwork.

“I never thought I wouldn’t graduate,” said Decker, who will also receive his diploma on Saturday at the Arena. “When I’m in school, that’s the only thing I think of.”

Teachers, counselors build trust

Before counselors like Duffey and Fowler can make a difference for homeless students, they must make connections.

“This is absolutely about building relationships,” Duffey said. “Kids have to be able to trust you and you have to be able to meet them where they are at.”

Less than four years ago, Harpole was on the verge of falling through the cracks. Her father was in prison and her family was racked by drug abuse.

“I was stuffed in a little box,” said Harpole, a small girl with a tiny voice. “I didn’t know what I could do or what I could be.”

After several failed living arrangements with relatives, she moved in with her sister, who had a husband and two young children.

Money was tight, so Harpole found a job in the concession stand at the Dwight Merkel Sports Complex. To get there, Harpole bought a 1994 Honda Accord. It’s a car she likens to herself: “It gets the job done.”

Harpole tried to get involved at NC, where she once competed in gymnastics and volleyball and was a cheerleader for a couple of months.

“But I had to give it up to make money, because the schedules never worked out,” Harpole said. “I needed the money.”

She also needed books and other supplies. Thanks to the national McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, North Central and Spokane Public Schools were able to help.

But first Harpole had to be her own advocate.

“I was scared to tell people (about being homeless), but I came out of the box,” Harpole said.

Duffey and the staff at NC answered the call by providing funds for sports equipment, yearbooks and even a driver’s license, which helped bring Harpole in from the margins of high school life.

“That’s what I would tell people: Be more outgoing and put yourself out there,” Harpole said.

Toward a brighter future

Decker got the same kind of help at Rogers, where they even helped pay for prom.

The week after graduation, he will be sworn in by the Army. He is expected to report in late summer with plans to become a military policeman.

His ambitions – “20 years in the Army, a nice house for my family and my dream truck” – don’t seem as outlandish as they did a few years ago.

Harpole’s dreams are pragmatic: earn her prerequisites at SFCC, then transfer to a four-year school and major in business, or accounting.

“Or I might be a counselor,” she said, smiling at Duffey.


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